Balthasar & Francis

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While I appreciated Luke Timothy Johnson’s fair and serene review of Karen Kilby’s Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction (April 12), I disagree with both of them that Balthasar takes a “God’s Eye View” of things. Or rather, their accusation misses the point. As Thomas Aquinas says: “Sacred doctrine derives its principles not from any human knowledge, but from divine knowledge, according to which, by means of the highest wisdom, all our knowledge is set in order” (Summa Theologiae). One could, after all, easily make the same charge against St. Paul when he says that “God made him [Christ], who knew not sin, to be sin for our sake, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Was Paul speaking here from God’s viewpoint? I think his answer would be something like “No, not exactly.” Instead he would say—as in fact he did say—that he was speaking from a revelation given to him directly by Jesus Christ (Gal 2:11–12). From this perspective, theology is but the explication of that previously accepted revelation. As Thomas again says: “The knowledge proper to this science [theology] comes through revelation and not through natural reason” (Summa). Theologians only seem as if they are taking a “God’s eye view” because they accept that revelation really did come from God. As to Balthasar’s speculations about Trinitarian involvement in Holy Saturday, he is only following the same “method” that G. K. Chesterton followed in Orthodoxy, where he said:

It is written, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ No, but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this is what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man; and in a garden God tempted God.… When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, [that happened] not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross, the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay...let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation, only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Was Chesterton speaking from God’s point of view here? No, he was merely reading the Bible intelligently and with speculative verve, just as Balthasar did. Anyone who understands that passage will understand Balthasar too.

Edward Oakes, SJ
Mundelein, Ill.

What the Church Needs Now

Thank you for Paul Moses’s insightful take on the new pope and his name (“Why ‘Francis’?” April 12). I appreciate Moses’s recounting of the life of St. Francis, as it relates to both the failings and strengths of the church over the centuries. Seeing Pope Francis hop on the bus and refuse the Mercedes does inspire some hope for his pontificate, and for the church. There is important symbolic meaning in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s decision to take the name Francis. Being from Latin America, the pope recognizes the great importance of serving the poor. His humility connects with St. Francis as a model of Catholic spirituality.

But therein lies the problem. As Moses writes, St. Francis “avoided speaking out against church authorities or miscreant clergymen, and instead made his point through example.” He taught by example in ways that remind us of Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day. They aspired to a profound personal spirituality that was both interior and engaged in the world—a compelling approach. Yet the silence of St. Francis assumes an idea of the “good Catholic” that may prolong the corrupt and dated structures of the church.

The Second Vatican Council tried to renew the decaying structures of the church inherited from the Counter-Reformation. The council was, in many ways, our own Reformation. Yet many of its reforming efforts were largely thwarted by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Those popes imposed an atmosphere of obedience and “orthodoxy” that has squelched dissent, and all but lost an entire generation of priests, nuns, and laypeople. They made it impossible for dialogue and renewal to overcome the archaic demands of silence and obedience to church authorities.

Taking their lead, conservative forces in the church resisted open discussion; they were not comfortable having the power of the clergy diluted by the laity, especially women. Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day will, of course, become saints, just as St. Francis did. They will serve as models of obedient Catholicism. But obedience is not what the church needs from the faithful. It needs compassion. Catholics must be willing to do the hard work of transforming the church and the world. That can only be accomplished if the church relinquishes its need to control the lives of the faithful. I hope Pope Francis can move beyond silent humility and challenge the church to divest itself of the social control it is so good at imposing.

Robert Oliva
Floral Park, N.Y.

Published in the 2013-05-17 issue: 

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